Psywar and Misinformation: 1965 Indonesia, 2016-? United States

I recently had the privilege to review Geoffrey Robinson‘s The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965-1966. It’s scheduled to be published promptly in March 2019 because academic publishing (although you might click here to see what happens). Anyone who happens to be reading this blog post is probably someone who would enjoy reading Robinson’s book.

In a chapter entitled “A Gleam of Light in Asia,” Robinson describes how British and American authorities participated in a “sophisticated international propaganda and psywar operation” to blame the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) for the alleged coup against Sukarno. In the days following the murder of the six Army generals, there were plenty of skeptical voices—domestically and internationally—who doubted the claims of the PKI’s culpability or responsibility. But, writes Robinson,

One reason the critics and skeptics were not easily heard was that information about the alleged coup and violence was deliberately skewed by a sophisticated international propaganda and psywar operation organized by British and US government agencies and their Indonesian Army friends.

The American campaign involved

clear direction to US agencies to stress the PKI’s alleged role in the alleged coup and emphasize its brutality, while at the same time playing down any sins of splits within the military. Following army cues, they also suggested stirring up memories of the 1948 Madiun uprising…. supplemented with reporting and commentary on the alleged (but never proven) role of China in the supposed coup and its connection with the PKI.

On the British side, a memo from the Foreign Office

fully endorsed the proposal for “unattributable propaganda or psy-war activities which would contribute to weakening the PKI permanently”… in which “British participation or cooperation should be carefully concealed” and the “overt…British attitude should be one of strict non-interference.”

This was almost completely disingenuous on both the American and British parts, given the depth and extent of Western skepticism of both PKI and Chinese involvement—but it served a clear political purpose. Reading on,

Western diplomats understood well that in the days following the purported coup, print and broadcast media had become crucial fields of political struggle…. A further element of the international psywar campaign was the cultivation of “friendly” foreign correspondents and journalists by various Western governments.

It is not hard to see here the parallels between Western efforts to shape Indonesian politics through misinformation and media manipulation and the Russian campaign to disrupt US politics. The details have changed, of course, but the idea remains the same: stress one interpretation of politics over others, collaborate with (and support) trustworthy and likeminded media partisans, link current events to sensitive and inflammatory historical moments, and so forth.

The big difference is the media environment, with the Indonesian Army having shut down all opposition media by October 2, 1965. Compare this to the United States, where the media is free and competitive, and where social media means that the way that most Americans consume political media is entirely different. But that just changes the tactics (Twitter bots, fake Facebook news), not the logic of psywar (distract, deflect, confuse).